I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning
Digital Ash in a Digital Urn': Four stars
Conor Oberst tries like hell to change his game up, dumping electronic beats and textures all over the doom and gloom folk-rockin' New Wave of "Digital Ash In A Digital Urn," but sometimes even geniuses are better served by playing to their strengths. And that's exactly what he's done here on the other Bright Eyes album hitting stores on Tuesday.
On "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning," Oberst returns to territory previously staked out on those classic early Dylan records, bringing in Emmylou Harris on vocals and kicking it off with a truly surreal little story about the strangers stuck beside each other on a crashing airplane as a lead-in to the hootenanny folk of the brilliantly phrased "At The Bottom of Everything." It's practically a great lost Dylan classic, only better, if that's possible, being just different enough to feel like a new Dylan having his own way with the tried-and-true cliches of folk, which may or may not be the case.
Other highlights range from heartfelt, haunting ballads ("Lua," "Land Locked Blues" and "We Are Nowhere and It's Now") to mournful, gospel-flavored chamber-folk ("Old Soul Song") to surprisingly romantic country-blues that couldn't sound much more like "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" ("First Day of My Life"). He makes the most of an upbeat train beat in "Another Travelin' Song," the closest Bright Eyes comes to rocking here. And any case for Oberst as his generation's master of the well-turned phrase will only be strengthened by the more inspired lines here.
In the death-tripping "Train Under Water," he whispers, "You were born inside of a raindrop and I watched you falling to your death/And the song, well, she could not save you/She'd fallen down, too/Now the streets are wet." In "Road to Joy," whose central riff and title share a common inspiration, his parents, "they have their religion but sleep in separate houses."
But his masterstroke here as a lyricist is "Poison Oak," in which feelings of brotherly love and betrayal collide. Adopting the trembling voice of a kid who can't stop worshiping his screwed-up older brother, even after all he's done to disappoint him, Oberst sings, "Well, I don't think that I ever loved you more than when you turned away, when you slammed the door, when you stole the car and drove towards Mexico and you wrote bad checks just to fill your arm/I was young enough, I still believed in war." It's in the tear-stained climax that he leaves the brightest talents of his generation in the dust, though, as the music swells behind him and he sings, "I'm glad you got away but I'm still stuck out here/My clothes are soaking wet from your brothers' tears."
There's nothing close to that sense of catharsis on "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn." And if there were, the beats would kill it. And that's when the gurgles and glitches and digital squelches would dance on its grave. Amazingly, Boy Wonder feels about as natural "going digital" as someone, say, Mick Jagger's age. At times, the sound is so cliched, so trite, so ill-conceived, you won't believe a kid as hip as Oberst would think for a second that this is the sort of record he should be hitting the streets with now, while everybody thinks he's flawless.
But he did.
At least the songs are brilliant. And a few make the most of the more song-oriented New Wave touches. Dig the swooning Roxy Music-worthy tragedy and electronic skittering of "Gold Mine Gutted," which surprisingly survives the fact that its opening beat is exactly the same as either "Chariots of Fire" or that Cars song, "Drive." Or sing along as Oberst lifts a luftballoon or two from Nena's greatest hit in the opening verse of "I Believe in Symmetry." But if you really want to love this album, go directly to the tuneful pining of the Bowiesque "Down in a Rabbit Hole," a brooding New Wave gem on which he's aided and abetted by Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs while questioning the girl who's been missing for days and days, "Did they paint your face that pasty white?"
If this reminds her of her favorite records, then she more than likely did the job herself, in which case she'd really respond to the death-tripping gloom of Oberst's lyrics here.
But next time, he should seriously skip right past the '90s techno beats and go directly for the '80s doom and gloom. It's more his style. Without actually being his style, of course. And he's certainly got the cheekbones for it.
LP / CD / MP3
LP / CD / Deluxe CD / MP3